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Indian Country Sets Priorities With State Of Nations Address


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Many of us are continuing to talk about President Obama's State of the Union address. In fact, the Barbershop guys will give us their thoughts about it later this hour. But there was another important speech this week laying out the priorities of the nations within the nation. I'm talking about yesterday's State of Indian Nations address. That speech is a chance for the president of the National Congress of American Indians to lay out his priorities for Indian country.

The Congress is the oldest and largest American-Indian and Alaskan native organization in the country. We wanted to hear more, so we are pleased to be joined now by the National Congress of American Indians' president Brian Cladoosby. He is a member of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community of Washington state, but he was kind enough to stay here in Washington, D.C. to visit with us today. Thank you so much for joining us.

BRIAN CLADOOSBY: Thank you, Michel, for allowing me to be here today to be on the TELL ME MORE show. It's very exciting.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. So your speech was very comprehensive as some might expect. But I just wanted to ask if you just give us a couple of keep points. I'd like to ask what you are most optimistic about and what you are most concerned about.

CLADOOSBY: Sure. Well, first of all, the president made a commitment to work with Indian country before he became the president.

MARTIN: You mean the other president.

CLADOOSBY: President Obama.

MARTIN: President Obama.

CLADOOSBY: Yes. He's done some wonderful things the last five years. This past November, he made a commitment to go and visit Indian country. So we're really looking forward to having the president visit Indian country.

MARTIN: Has that date been scheduled?

CLADOOSBY: Not yet. The date hasn't been scheduled. And the tribe that he is going to be visiting has not been announced yet. But we're looking forward to that time when he does commit to that.

MARTIN: What are you most concerned about? You identified, as we mentioned, a number of concerns. Could you just tell us one of the things that you talked about in the speech?

CLADOOSBY: Sure. I think a big concern that we always have going forward is getting the federal government into the 21st century. And so what I mean by that is that there are rules and regulations that govern the way that the government has interacted with tribes. And so some of these rules date back to the 18th and 19th, 20th century. And so they are still on the books now and very archaic. So this is not our grandparents' generation. And so those rules and regulations that are on the books right now were more paternalistic in nature. And we want not paternalistic in nature, we want true government to government where we are equals. And so we look forward to working on this issue with this administration in every area of his agencies.

MARTIN: You've been in office three months now. During that time, you've been doing a lot of traveling. One of the things I learned from your speech is that if you put Indian country together, it would be the fourth largest state in land area. I wanted to ask, is there something you learned in the course of your travels that you didn't know?

CLADOOSBY: In Alaska, the Tanana Chiefs, they represent dozens of tribes. And about one-third of their tribes up there that they represent do not have running water or sewage, indoor plumbing. And we take that for granted here in the lower 48. And so that's - you know, it's - we would consider that almost Third World. They - traveling to North Carolina, they have their own tribal school. To be able to see those kids being in classrooms where they're learning their native language, where they are able to create arts and crafts that their elders and their generations before them did - weaving and doing pottery and things like that.

And going down to the Gila River and going down to the Mohave nation and seeing the economic development opportunities that they are having the opportunity to create and do for their people now is just outstanding. But, like I said, there's, you know, you got the Pine Ridge - haven't been there yet, I look forward to going there. But, you know, that is probably the place where a lot of government help needs to go to to just help them with the issues that they're facing right now - health care, big issue. We've always been dealing with, you know, drugs and alcohol and uneducated workforce, but we're starting to see the tide change in those areas.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Brian Cladoosby. He is the president of the National Congress of American Indians, and he delivered the State of Indian Nations address in Washington, D.C. yesterday. And he was kind enough to stop by our studios to tell us more about it. You know, you were noted at the beginning of our conversation that in the decades that you've been working in this area, that you've seen a new level of cooperation from this administration. But it's also true that the sequester, that that whole series of, you know, deep budget cuts intended to, you know, reduce the deficit and the government shutdown had major effects on Indian country in a way that perhaps people outside of Indian country may not be aware of. And I just wondered if you are beginning to recover from that.

CLADOOSBY: People in the United States don't understand what a treaty right is. Basically, in a nutshell, we signed these treaties with the U.S. government, ceded to them millions and millions of acres of land. And we helped create the greatest country in the world, by far, second to none. And many promises were made to the tribes. Some of those promises included health care. Some of those promises included education. Some of those promises included payments for the lands.

And so the funding should be a treaty right, not a line item. Health care, for example, we lost, in the sequester, over $200 million from the IHS budget and the BIA budget - Indian House Service, IHS, and BIA, Bureau of Indian Affairs. Now under the $1.2 trillion budget that President Obama just signed on January, it restored some of those cuts, but we're still way behind where we were, you know, years ago. So we'll continue to work this administration and this Congress to restore those cuts as much as possible.

MARTIN: The other thing you were telling us about, though, is just bureaucratically, I mean, I think people who are following this may remember that one of the initiatives that the president - that President Obama, the other president, touted in his speech were these promise zones - or these enterprise zones is what they, you know, they used to be called. Well, he was going to try to kind of clear away some of the bureaucratic underbrush to achieve job growth in some of these key areas. One of the promise zones that he identified is in Indian country. But you were telling us that there's a whole other layer of kind of bureaucratic involvement in trying to create these kinds of initiatives on your own. Do you mind talking a little bit about that?

CLADOOSBY: Sure. That is part of the archaic rules and regulations that have been in place. For example, one tribe had an opportunity to do an economic development venture with a very large retailer here in the United States. And so the tribe and the retailer came to an agreement on a contract. Well, there is a couple layers of OK that the tribes have to get - one from your local Bureau of Indian Affairs and one from your regional Bureau of Indian Affairs. And so the local Bureau of Indian Affairs approved that contract.

The regional Bureau of Indian Affairs sat on that contract for one year. This was right at the beginning of the Great Recession here in '08 - '07, '08, '09 - in that time period. Because they did not move on that as quick as they should have, the economy went upside down. This retailer made the decision to cut a number of its stores that it was planning on building, and that was one of the cuts. So this tribe was, you know, affected by the fact that the Bureau of Indian Affairs did not act quickly. Luckily enough, this tribe was able to let Congress know this story, and they were able to change the rules - that now the Bureau of Indian Affairs, I believe, has a 30-day window whether to say yes or no to these contracts. They cannot sit on it.

MARTIN: But you were also telling us that 60 percent of the roads in Indian country aren't paved.

CLADOOSBY: It is very, very sad. You know, people take things for granted, infrastructure for granted, roads, telecommunications, broadband, Internet service, phones. Just those basic things that people just take for granted are not existent in a lot of communities in the United States, especially Indian country.

MARTIN: Overall, though, how - given, as I mentioned, you've only been in office for three months. But during that time, you've already started doing a lot of traveling, taking kind of the sense of Indian country. Overall, what would you say? Do you feel, you know - typically the president in his - President Obama - the other president says that he sort of gives some sort of an assessment of the state of the union. Do you feel comfortable doing that? What would you say is the state of Indian Country right now?

CLADOOSBY: In South Dakota, through the Clinton initiative, you know, the tribes there are creating some great wind power projects. It's just awesome. And, you know, down there, the Gila River tribe created a couple of sports facilities for the Diamondbacks and another Major League Baseball team to have their facility down there. And these tribes are starting to invest in other areas that they weren't - never able to before.

So we're seeing - and with that comes the opportunity for them to educate their kids. And so we're seeing an increase - the number of kids in higher education has doubled in about a generation - the number of kids attending college. And we put a strong emphasis - and all tribes do - on education because we feel that education is a way to destroy drug and alcohol abuse and poverty.

MARTIN: Well, Mr. President, we do hope you'll check in with us from time to time over the course of your term. Before we let you go, you know, there's a big sporting event this weekend - don't know if you're interested in that at all. But since you're from Washington state...


MARTIN: ...I just thought I would ask.

CLADOOSBY: I am from Washington. And the Seahawks are going to be the next Super Bowl winners. They have the number one defense. Defense wins games. They have a phenomenal quarterback who was told he was too short and that he wasn't going to make it. And you love stories like that where people say you can't, and it's proven I can. And so the Seahawks will beat the Denver Broncos, 27-20, on Sunday.

MARTIN: Well, you know, you've got constituents...


MARTIN: ...In Colorado, don't you?

CLADOOSBY: ...I feel sorry for them.

MARTIN: OK. You heard it here first. Brian Cladoosby is the president of the National Congress of American Indians. That's the nation's oldest and largest American-Indian and Alaskan native organization. He's a member of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community of Washington state. No partisanship there at all. And he was kind enough to join us in Washington, D.C. in our studios here. Mr. President, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CLADOOSBY: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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